Is Meaning The Path to Happiness?
Interview with Emily Esfahani Smith
Posted Aug 06, 2017
Let’s face it, most of us want to be happier. But are you looking for it in the wrong places?
Since the time of Aristotle, debate has raged about what really constitutes happiness. While the hedonic approach suggests that happiness is the experience of pleasure and joy, the eudaimonic pathway emphasizes the importance of meaning, community and spirituality. So where should you invest your energy and efforts if you really want to be happier?
“When you’re in a culture so focused on happiness you can be caught up in pursuing what gives you pleasure and success,” explained Emily Esfahani Smith author of The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters when I interviewed her recently. “But the happiness boost these give you can quickly fade away and leave you with a feeling of emptiness.”
In fact some argue that being too single-focused on trying to find joy and contentment can be a misguided or shortsighted aim, and can even backfire, leaving you feeling unhappy and dissatisfied with life. Emily suggests, however, that when you believe that you’re living a meaningful life, you can experience true fulfilment and a deeper sense of happiness.
So what makes life more meaningful?
In 1930, the year of the stock market crash that led to the Great Depression, the historian and philosopher Will Durant decided to write to the great literary, philosophical, and scientific luminaries of his day to ask them how they found significance and fulfillment in their own lives during that tumultuous period of history. In 1998, Life Magazine undertook a similar venture. While each response was unique, four common pathways to meaning emerged through their stories: belonging, purpose, story-telling and transcendence.
The good news, Emily’s research has found is that each of the four pillars of meaning are accessible to anyone, regardless of your religious beliefs, your upbringing, or what your jobs might be right now. So how you create more meaning in your life and work?
Emily suggests trying the following:
- Cultivate belonging – each of us have a deep-seated need to feel understood, recognized and affirmed by others. When you belong you feel that you’re valued and cared for. While you might not always be able to get somebody else to reach out to you, you can always find ways to reach out to others to show them they're valued.
Professor Jane Dutton has found that anyone, in any position, can change how they feel, and how their co-workers feel, simply by fostering small moments of high quality connection. For example, you can decide to respond kindly to an annoying colleague, say hello to others as you pass in the corridor, and choose to look for the strengths in people rather than devalue them.
- Live Your Purpose – having a sense of purpose is feeling that in some way what you're doing contributes to others or makes a positive difference in the world. You have a circle of people at work – your colleagues, your clients, your suppliers - whose lives you can improve in a way that plays uniquely to your strengths and interests if you re-frame your tasks as opportunities to help others. It’s a legacy anyone can leave behind if you just choose to make it your priority.
- Tell Your Story – your life is not just a list of random events; you can edit, interpret and retell your stories in many different ways. When you tell your story with a redemptive ending that finds the good in adversity, studies have found you are more likely to believe that your life is coherent and meaningful. And writing about what you believe you have lost in your life as a result of choices you've made or a major event, such as getting divorced, has been found to give people a greater sense of resolution and peacefulness.
- Find moments of Transcendence – you can experience awe in nature, in a religious setting through prayer or meditation, and in smaller ways such as looking at art, or listening to a beautiful piece of music. These moments of transcendence can leave you feeling humbled, inspired and uplifted at the same time by putting you in touch with your mortality and how tiny you are in the grand scheme of things, whilst also connecting you with something much bigger than yourself.
What can you do to gain a sense of fulfillment by creating more meaning in your life?